webGuinée/Etat/Diplomatie/John H. Morrow/First American Ambassador to Guinea/Visiting Americans
Diplomatie. Guinée — Etats-Unis d’Amérique
John H. Morrow
First American Ambassador to Guinea.
New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. 1968. 291 p.
I am sure that on more than one occasion American Embassy officers have lamented the fact that so many high-ranking Washington officials or members of Congress have descended upon the various capitals around the world to investigste this or find out about that. These officers probably felt that their time could have been spent in much more profitable and constructive ways.
In Guinea, however, I welcomed and looked forward to visits by American officials and members of Congress, because I felt that they needed to come to Guinea to get a first-hand view of the situation. They could not get a true picture from Washington briefings—conducted often by desk officers who had never been in Guinea—or from stories in daily papers and periodicals—stories written in some instances by those who had been denied entrance into Guinea. Although my post was a long distance from Washington and not easily reached, I did receive many visitors, official and unofficial, who made it their business to come to flus African republic to see for themselves. In one instance I was host to forty newspaper editors and reporters who came from all over the United States—May Craig, who used to cover the Washington scene and ask Presidents her inimitable questions, came along to ask me a few. On another occasion, thirty internes of an AID (Agency of International Development) program sponsored by Boston University spent two days traveling in Guinea. Not too long after this, Bernard Blankenheimer, a very able official from the U.S. Department of Commerce, and several American businessmen made a significant visit to Guinea. No visitors to Guinea did more to strengthen anemic American-Guinea rapport than Senator Stuart Symington (Dem.) of Missouri and former Governor Averell Harriman of New York (Harriman had not yet been appointed to the various posts he held under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations).
Before proceeding further, let me point out that our problems in Guinea would have been utterly impossible to solve had I not had the support and co-operation of members of our Embassy staff such as Deputy Chief of Mission Anthony Ross, John Cunningham, Philip Heller, Roger Bearce, Wayne Kirchwem and Wilbur Petty (USIS), Howard Williams, Genevieve Rowan, and Robert Adams.
Senator Symington decided to include Guinea in his African itinerary of December 1959. I was not concerned whether the Senator’s reported presidential aspirations motivated his African tour. The important thing was that he intended to come to Guinea. He was the first high-ranking American to visit this new African republic, and he arrived fortuitously in December, shortly after President Touré’s return from his highly successful series of state visits. The Senator was accompanied by Attorney Fowler Hamilton, who became Director of the Agency of International Development for a period during the Kennedy administration.
I was happy that the American Senator and his colleague were so well received by the people of Guinea. President Touré and his Ministers were very pleased that an American Senator, and a potential candidate for the Presidency, had seen fit to visit their country. Senator Symington and I called on President Touré, and with my help as interpreter the two men had a lengthy and profitable conversation. The Senator met and talked with the leading members of the Government during his three-day stay. He asked us very keen and penetrating questions during the Embassy briefings and gave evidence of a remarkable grasp of the situation in Guinea.
Although the Senator was favorably impressed with the work being done by our one English-language teacher, he let me know that he was concerned that only one teacher had been sent in answer to a request from President Touré himself. Senator Symington was dismayed to discover that terms had yet to be worked out by the International Co-operation Administration (ICA) which would enable some 150 Guinean students to come to the United States to study under the terms of the October 1959 cultural agreement signed in Washington.
Senator Symington was very much impressed by the fact that wherever we went in the official car with the American and the Ambassadorial flags flying, Guineans, old and young, stopped to wave, call out friendly greetings, and applaud. The Senator told me that this was the first time he had ever seen this happen. I do believe that he must have concluded after three days of this kind of treatment that the showing of friendship was genuine and not something arranged for his visit.
I saw the press reports of a news conference given by the Senator upon his return to the United States from his fifteen-day tour of eight African countries. His five suggestions for strengthening the U.S. position and counteracting Communist influence in Africa interested me greatly. He proposed:
- One billion dollars in American aid each year
- Fewer restrictions on the use of our aid funds
- Increased exchange of American and African students, teachers, and others to spur education in Africa
- Expansion of American diplomatic and assistance missions in Africa
- Increased training in African languages for Americans sent to work in Africa.
St. Louis PostDispatch, Jan. 31, 1960)
The Senator expressed the opinion that in most of the free countries of Africa the Communist position was either equal or nearly as good as the American position, but he admitted that in a few African countries the Communist position was better. He called for better medical care, better education, and a higher standard of living for Africans.
In his report to the U.S. Senate on his African trip, the Senator related the extremely favorable observations and impressions he had heard President Touré express concerning his 1959 visit to the United States. He inserted in the Congressional Record a message of thanks which Touré had asked him to deliver to the American people, and then said the following:
Mr. President, during my recent trip to Africa, I had the great honor of meeting with leaders of some of the newly independent, developing nations of that continent. None was more impressive than President Sékou Touré of the Republic of Guinea.
President Touré knows and understands the problems which an emerging nation must face. He has the determination and foresight, which I am sure, meet the challenge of the future in a manner that will benefit his nation and the world.
President Touré made a lasting impression on those who met him during his recent tours of this country. This trip was an example of what can be done between nations if there is a mutual exchange of ideas and plans.
I hope that there will be many more such visits and exchanges between our peoples and those of African nations.
Congressional Record-Senate, Feb. 1, 1960, p. 1512)
Fortunately for us, Senator Symington’s interest in Guinea did not end with his return to America. It is my understanding that he began to question the government agencies about why so little assistance was being given to Guinea. He cited for example one English teacher sent to a country with a population of two and one-half million people. When he discovered that the 150 cultural scholarships could not be granted unless the Guinean Government signed the standard ICA bilateral agreement, he questioned the validity of a stipulation which penalized innocent students.
I remain convinced that the unflagging interest and the good services of Senator Symington had much to do with the securing of those thirteen American teachers who came to Guinea to conduct the English-language program during the summer of 1960, and with the enabling of forty-two Guinean students to come to America for study in October 1960. What I have always regretted is that more Americans like Senator Symington did not come to Guinea between 1959 and 1961.
Fortunately for the United States, the presidential candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy, had arranged to send Governor Averell Harriman to Africa on a fact-finding mission in August 1960. Guinean officials did not conceal from me their pleasure at the fact that Harriman was including their country in his tour. Although the Governor came as a private citizen, he was greeted with the pomp and ceremony accorded official visitors. The Guinean Government wanted Harriman to occupy one of President Touré’s guest houses, but he decided to stay at the Hôtel de France. As already indicated, the official residence which we were occupying had no facilities for visiting dignitaries.
At the Governor’s insistence, I was present at his meetings with the Guinean Ministers as well as at his meeting with President Touré and his Cabinet. I made it a point, however, to see to it that Governor Harriman had the opportunity to speak privately with President Touré at the buffet dinner given in his honor at the Pr6sidence. It was during this dinner, apparently, that Touré told his visitor that I was one of the most trusted and respected members of the diplomatic corps in Guinea.
The high point in the Harriman visit came during the meeting involving Touré, his Cabinet, Harriman, and myself.
We had assembled in the Cabinet Room upstairs in the Présidence. The meeting started on a humorous note. The Governor had prefaced his remarks by telling the Guineans that he and I were good friends but we had one major difference in that we belonged to different political parties. Upon hearing this remark, I half rose from my seat and with a perfectly straight face offered to leave the room so that the Governor would feel free to talk to Touré. President Touré, his Cabinet members, Governor Harriman, and I joined the hearty laughter that met this gesture, which had been understood by all those present.
I was proud to be on the scene that day to witness Harriman in action. He was at all times direct and to the point and could be very blunt when the occasion warranted. He made no apologies for those things for which America stood. He spoke the language easily understood and appreciated by Touré, who responded in kind and also revealed what was on his mind. There was no room for misunderstanding during that meeting. We caught a glimpse of Harriman as he might have been during his ambassadorship to the Soviet Union. All of us were pleased with the meeting of minds.
I had the opportunity to talk with Governor Harriman for four hours during a combination breakfast-lunch at the residence the day before he left Guinea. We explored the problems confronting the United States not only in Guinea but also in Africa in general. I stressed my belief that America could make a real contribution in Africa in the areas of health, education, and social welfare. Before leaving the residence, Governor Harriman graciously presented me with his book, Peace with Russia, on the flyleaf of which he had written:
For John Morrow: With admiration for the fine job you are doing and many thanks for your warm hospitality.
Averell Harriman, Aug. 1960.
There was no question in my mind that the visit of this man as a private citizen on a fact-finding mission for Kennedy did much to improve and strengthen American-Guinean understanding. No propaganda pamphlets or television broadcasts could have done as much as Harriman had accomplished in his face-to-face confrontation with Touré. Harriman did not share the fear expressed in some quarters that Touré and his Government had gone over the brink. I received the distinct impression that he understood that Touré was an African nationalist struggling to make his nation stable and viable.
It is my firm belief that the report made to presidential candidate Kennedy by Harriman on his findings in Africa had much to do with the “new-look-for-the-better” in African affairs at the State Department immediately after the Kennedy administration came to power in January 1961. It may be recalled that the first important appointment made by Kennedy as President was that of G. Mennen Williams to the post of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. This appointment was important, not because Williams knew anything about African affairs, for nobody knew better than the Africans that the new Assistant Secretary of State knew very little about their affairs. Williams’ appointment was important because the President of the United States had seen fit to place a man of his stature in such a post. It implied that Williams had the ear of the President and once he could get his feet on the ground in the African arena much-needed changes could be expected in U.S.-African policies.
Unfortunately, subsequent events did not bear out completely these early hopes about the significance of Williams’ appointment. Returning to the question of the influence of the Harriman report, I do believe that his recommendations very specifically effected a change in U.S. policy toward Guinea after April 1961, when the Kennedy appointee to Guinea, Ambassador William Attwood, reported to the Republic of Guinea. I was very happy for my successor, Ambassador Attwood, that there was at the beginning this intelligent appraisal of the Guinean situation and a recognition of the need to cast aside outmoded procedures, techniques, and policies for dealing with African nations.
The reception received by a group of distinguished Americans that came to Guinea in the latter part of December 1960 differed sharply from that received by either Senator Symington or Governor Harriman. The delegation was made up of Senator Frank Church (Dem., Idaho), Senator Gale W. McGhee (Dem., Wyo.), Senator Frank E. Moss (Dem., Utah), and Edward Kennedy, younger brother of the President-elect. Young Kennedy had joined the Senators and their party for the last leg of their African fact-finding tour.
I have often asked myself why it was that this last group of American dignitaries to visit Guinea during my tour of duty received such a cool reception. I think the answer is to be found in the events occurring just prior to their arrival. If it had been within my power to suggest a date for the visit, I certainly would have put it off until a more propitious moment.
I had been made well aware that President Touré and his Ministers were very much irked by the role the United States delegation to the United Nations had played in seating in the UN General Assembly the Congolese delegation sponsored by President Kasavubu. The Guinean delegation at the United Nations had given all-out support to the rival Congolese delegation sponsored by their friend, Patrice Lumumba, who had insisted that he and not Kasavubu was the legal head of the Central Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was aware also that Touré was very unhappy about the treatment received by a message which he had sent directly to President Eisenhower, taking issue with Eisenhower over U.S. support for the UN policy in the strife-torn Congolese Republic. Touré’s implied charges that the United States was allied with those nations opposing freedom for the Congo and for other African states had drawn a strong reply from President Eisenhower, which was carried on the front pages of American newspapers on November 26, 1960. In this public reply, President Eisenhower had declared emphatically that the United States had been in the forefront of those nations favoring the emancipation of all peoples. Eisenhower asserted that the United States had warmly welcomed the creation of an independent Congo, and had upheld the unity and territorial integrity of the Congolese Republic through the United Nations, and not by means of unilateral intervention in Congolese internal affairs.
Touré had sent a message to President-elect Kennedy also, but had received a rebuff on this score when Kennedy let him know that he too was supporting the stand taken by President Eisenhower on the role played by the United Nations in the Congo. It seems that Kennedy’s reply surprised and nettled Touré, who had expected a difference of opinion between Eisenhower and Kennedy. Touré reacted by carrying out his December 1960 threat to recall Guinean troops from the Congo, made during the formation of the Ghana-Guinea-Mali Union, and cabled the UN Security Council that he was withdrawing four hundred troops stationed in the Congo because of violations of the UN Charter by the UN force in the Congo.
When the American Senators and Edward Kennedy reached Guinea, President Touré had not returned from an official visit to Sierra Leone. I had arranged, however, for my visitors to see Touré on the following Monday morning, prior to their departure from Guinea. In the meantime, the word reached Conakry that an attempt had been made in Sierra Leone to sabotage the helicopter—a gift from the Soviet Union—in which Touré was traveling. It was reported that dirt had been placed in the oil line of the helicopter, and it had been necessary to fly a second plane to Sierra Leone to return the presidential party to Conakry. I did not expect that this incident, if true, was going to put Sékou Touré in a congenial mood for meeting Monday morning guests.
It should not be difficult to imagine what happened when we arrived at the Pr6sidence on that morning. The first thing I noticed was that the guards did not come forward to greet me with their usual alacrity. I summoned a guard and asked him to notify the Cabinet Chief that my guests and I had arrived for our meeting with President Touré and his Cabinet. I presumed that the guard delivered the message, for he went into the office of the Cabinet Chief. When he did not return with a reply, and the Cabinet Chief did not appear, I thought this somewhat strange. As the minutes ticked by and no one appeared, I told the delegation members that I had begun to suspect that the delay had some diplomatic implication. I had never waited to get into President Touré’s office before, whether I came with visitors or alone. My remarks brought the observation from one of the more candid members of the delegation that they had waited a very long while in Addis Ababa before getting in to see Emperor Haile Selassie.
Prodded by the thought that we had not kept the Guinean delegation waiting at any of the appointments at the White House or at the State Department in the fall of 1959, and by my determination not to have the Addis Ababa wait repeated in Conakry, I stepped into the hall and called a guard. I told him to inform the Cabinet Chief that I had found it impossible to wait any longer, and was therefore returning to the Embassy with my guests. The guard turned in a flash and sprinted up the stairs to the Cabinet Chief’s office. Before I could re-enter the waiting room to suggest to Senator Church, the delegation leader, that we should leave, the guard returned to say that the President wished to see us. As I climbed the stairs to the Cabinet Room, I was not sanguine about our chances for a successful exchange of views.
Upon entering the Cabinet Room, in which the Ministers had already taken seats around the long table, I noticed immediately that President Touré appeared tired and was not his usual cordial self. I was conscious also of the absence of banter usually exchanged among the young Ministers. There was something unusually solemn about this premeeting atmosphere.
Scarcely had I finished introducing the Senators and young Kennedy before Touré launched into a lengthy discussion of Guinean history and geography. He skirted the vital problems, which he and I knew from past experience American officials wished to discuss. I suddenly realized that Touré knew that the delegation was supposed to go directly from the Présidence to the airport to depart for Dakar, their last stop. I decided that he was deliberately using up time to avoid an extended question-answer period.
When the Senators and Kennedy did get the opportunity to ask questions, the answers given were not very relevant. It became obvious that Touré was not going out of his way to impress these visitors favorably. I could see the implications for the future if the American delegation left with the feeling that it had been impossible to get first-hand information on troublesome problems which threatened American-Guinean relations.
On February 12, 1961, there appeared in the United States a Senate document reporting on the African tour made by the U.S. Senators. A portion of this report devoted exclusively to Guinea clearly precluded any possible implementation of the bilateral agreement which the Minister of Plan, N’Famara Keita, and I had signed on September 30, 1960, in Conakry. I cannot say that I was surprised by this report, but I was sorry that the conclusions had been reached after only one meeting with Touré, held under none too favorable circumstances. The report said in part:
There are indications that the performance of the Bloc in Guinea has not measured up to its expansive promises. We see no reason for the United States to undertake to obscure this development, or to assist any Communist effort to make Guinea an example of what bloc aid can accomplish. There are limits to our resources and too many African countries which need our help, and which respect our motives. Another issue causing us to advocate a wait-and-see approach is the recent dispatch of large quantities of military supplies from the Bloc. The implausible explanation Guinea offers regarding its needs for such arms, including anti-aircraft guns, concerns the purported discovery of arms caches in connection with a “plot” against its borders.
Pending clearer evidence that Guinea indeed wants our friendship and wishes to—and can—preserve its independence from the Bloc, we believe that the United States should maintain no more than a token aid program just to keep the door open.
There, spelled out in black and white for the first time, was the very policy which the United States had been following in Guinea since 1959. Nobody had been willing to admit this to me before, even though I had sought through various means to discover what policy had been set for this country where the American Embassy staff had tried unceasingly to establish mutual understanding. In my estimation, it would have been much fairer had I been told this very frankly in Washington before departing for Guinea. If it had not been possible to determine the guidelines before my departure, at least I should have been told the day, the hour, the minute the United States decided its policy. It is a matter of record that we lived in hope, we never despaired, we never stopped fighting for what we thought should be done to assist this developing country in its struggle through a desperate and frustrating transition period.
The report made by the American delegation came as a result of its contact, treatment, and observations in Guinea.
I hold Touré himself responsible for some of the conclusions drawn. I think that he was most unpolitical and shortsighted not to have made an honest effort to answer the queries put to him by Church and his colleagues. He had everything to gain and nothing to lose. The press had already printed all kinds of unfavorable things about Guinea—some true and some untrue. He did not have to worry about the exposure of skeletons in the closet. He had only to slug it out as he had done with Averell. Harriman, and the Senators might have been impressed by his forthrightness, whether or not they agreed with him. Instead, angry at U.S. policy in the United Nations, provoked by Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s replies to his allegations, morose over the alleged sabotage attempt in Sierra Leone, this young African leader stepped in the plate in the U.S. Senate’s World Series. He did not go down swinging; he was out on called strikes.
Senator Church saw fit to insert in the Congressional Record (Appendix, Jan. 30, 1961, p. A555) very complimentary remarks concerning my ability as a diplomat and representative of the United States abroad. But Senator Stuart Symington had done the same thing upon his return to America (Congressional Record—Senate, Feb. 1, 1960, p. 1512). My real concern was the knowledge, after reading the Church report, that tangible progress toward meeting the problems of human suffering abounding in Guinea was not going to be made during the time I would be there.
Deputy Undersecretary of State Loy Henderson came to Guinea in the course of an October 1960 inspection tour of American Embassies and Consulates in sub-Saharan Africa. Although Henderson’s visit involved American business, strictly speaking, I saw to it that he got to converse with Minister Abdourahmane Diallo, Acting President in the absence of Touré. My good friend C. Vaughn Ferguson served as the interpreter during Henderson’s conversation with Diallo.
It is to the everlasting credit of Loy Henderson that he did his best to secure for me the kind of administrative support which I requested. But not even Henderson could overcome overnight the dearth of trained, knowledgeable Foreign Service personnel in hardship posts in Africa or Asia.
We accompanied this twenty-one-man party of American officials to the airport on October 26, 1960. The guards waved us through customs with a smile and a sharp salute. The passports had already been delivered to the departing visitors, so we walked out to the waiting MATS plane. I asked the young Embassy officer once again if he had checked to see that the passports were in order, and he answered in the affirmative. I stayed aboard the plane a moment to wish the delegation a safe trip to Sierra Leone and a safe return to America. The plane took off and was soon out of sight.
An agitated and displeased commandant of the airport met me at the door of the waiting room. In excited tones he explained that the Americans had left Guinea without filling out exit visas and declarations of foreign currency. I told him that this had been handled by the Guinean Foreign Ministry, and I had been assured that all was in order for a smooth departure. I asked him to check with the Ministry, but he insisted that the Ministry did not run the airfield. He said he intended to instruct the tower to recall the plane. I assured him that he was making a grave mistake, especially since his Government had welcomed these distinguished visitors and had given assurance that all was in order for their departure from Guinea. I suggested again that he would do well to phone the Ministry. The commandant turned and walked toward the tower.
Our conversation lasted almost twenty minutes, and I hoped that the plane was out of the range of the tower’s signal by that time. Within five minutes, however, the commandant came strutting back to announce that the tower had radioed the plane and the pilot had agreed to return. I told the commandant that not a single American was going to get off that plane and set foot on Guinean soil; that if he had anything he wanted signed it would have to be taken to the plane. I told him that anybody who got on or off that plane would have to climb over me.
Twenty minutes later the plane landed. I went aboard and asked Loy Henderson why the plane had returned, particularly since the Guinean Foreign Ministry had handled the passports. He said the decision to return was made after a brief conference aboard. It was felt that future American-Guinean relations would be better if the letter of the law were obeyed.
Meanwhile, two guards had brought the necessary visa and currency cards to the door of the plane; these cards were filled out, stamped, and returned to the commandant’s office. For the second time that day I bade the visitors farewell, only this time I asked them not to return, even if they heard that I was a prisoner at the airport. Everybody aboard laughed. The plane took off.
I returned to the Embassy to prepare one of the stiffest notes that would be sent during my tour in Guinea. This note brought back the quickest response of any ever exchanged in Guinea. The Guinean note graciously apologized for the unfortunate incident created only through misunderstanding on the part of certain functionaries in the Ministry and at the airport. It reiterated the pleasure on the part of the Guinean Government to have welcomed the distinguished American visitors.
Several days later I received a personal letter from Loy Henderson with the dateline Monrovia, Liberia. He said in part:
It was a pleasure to see you during my two visits to Conakry. Please don’t feel concerned about our early return visit. lt did us no harm and it may be that the Government of Guinea will be conscious of our desire meticulously to respect its regulations. …
While on the subject of visiting Americans, I must not overlook the two visits made to Guinea by vessels from the U.S. South Atlantic Fleet on amity patrol. The first was made by two destroyers under the command of Commander R. A. Foreman. The ships spent three days at the harbor in Conakry toward the end of December 1960, and afforded many Guineans their first glimpse of an American naval vessel.
I accompanied Commander Foreman and two of his officers on protocol visits to the President of the National Assembly, Saifoulaye Diallo, and Defense Minister Fodéba Keita. Guinean Ministers visited the Commander’s flagship, and enlisted personnel and officers from the ships visited Conakry, played basketball with the Guineans, and purchased souvenirs. Commander Foreman invited Embassy officers and our wives aboard the U.S.S. Vogelgesang for dinner, and I reciprocated by having a party the following night at the residence, to which were invited the ships’ officers and the staff members of the British and West German Embassies. The three-day visit went off without incident, and the spirits of the members of the Western embassies were lifted by the enthusiasm and good nature of the visiting Americans.
The second visit by ships of the U.S. South Atlantic Fleet came about as the direct result of events in the Congo. Through coincidence, the same Guinean troops transported to the Congo in August 1960, in U.S. C-130’s under the flag of the United Nations, were returned home in February 1961 on U.S. vessels called upon in this emergency by the United Nations. These troops, recalled by Sékou Touré in December 1960, had been waiting in the Congo for transportation. It fell to the lot of Rear Admiral Allan L. Reed, an outstanding naval officer, to cancel scheduled amity visits in order to bring the Guinean troops to Conakry. The LSD’s under Reed’s command reached Conakry a day or so after the departure of Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union, and welcome signs and plastic Soviet flags were still on display in the main streets of Conakry.
The official landing ceremonies got under way after Admiral Reed, his aide, and I called on President Touré, and President Touré and his Ministers returned the call. In reality, President Touré came down to the port, but only his Ministers went aboard the flagship Hermitage to return the call. As a shore cannon began firing, the first contingent of Guinean troops marched ashore, smiling at the plaudits and shouts of relatives and other onlookers. It was to be several hours before the troops and gear could be unloaded, and President Touré and his Ministers left after the landing of the first contingent of troops. On all sides could be heard stories of friendships struck up among the Guinean soldiers and the U.S. sailors and marines aboard the vessels on the way to Guinea. The language barrier had not prevented the establishment of mutual respect and good fellowship.
Just before the start of the reception which we held at the residence that night in honor of Admiral Reed and his officers, I was made an honorary member of the Hermitage crew and presented with the ship’s emblem. At the conclusion of the reception the Admiral insisted that we should be his guests at dinner at the Hôtel de France. This was to be something of an outing for us and a change from the formal dinners at the residence or elsewhere. We reached Conakry at 9:15 p.m., and upon finishing a leisurely meal Admiral Reed suggested that we have coffee aboard the Hermitage. His car led the way to the port. When it turned into the port area, its headlights revealed not only that the large iron doors were shut, but that they were guarded by a squad of soldiers.
I had never seen the gates closed before, day or night. I motioned to one of the guards, who stepped forward, came to attention, and saluted. He seemed reluctant to answer my question about the armed guard and the closed gates. He said finally that the locked gates and the guards had been ordered by the Defense Minister. I stepped out of the car to go over to speak to Admiral Reed, and noticed a crumpled pile of plastic Soviet flags lying under a street light. This sight gave me some inkling of what might have happened. At that moment several sailors and marines returning from shore leave came into sight.
I outlined to Admiral Reed what probably had happened and instructed the guard to call the Defense Minister to let him know that I wished to enter the gates with my guests. I told the Admiral that I felt it advisable to clear all American personnel out of the vicinity. The easiest way to do this was to carry everybody out to the residence in Donka. Reed and his officers agreed to this idea, and in a moment the necessary order was given. There were approximately twenty to twenty-five sailors, marines, and officers in the gathering by that time. The sailors and marines climbed into a navy truck and jeep which had been brought ashore for errands and shore patrol. There were two cars for the officers, and three rode with my wife and me.
Before leaving the port, I told the Guinean guard that we could be reached at the residence. Thereupon I led through the silent streets of Conakry probably one of the strangest midnight processions that ever graced that tropical city. When we reached the gates of the residence in Donka, the two soldiers assigned as guards (around-the-clock guards were supplied by courtesy of the Guinean Government) opened the gates and stood at attention as the curious cortege rolled by. The most startled ones were the cook and his helpers, who were still cleaning up from the reception. The cook told me that a call had come from the Defense Ministry with the information that the Defense Minister would be happy to see us down at the port.
I thought that I would give the Minister, who lived not far up the street from the residence in Donka, sufficient time to reach Conakry. We learned from the assembled naval personnel that the Guinean police had stopped several enlisted men who were carrying plastic Soviet flags found in the streets of Conakry. As far as could be ascertained, nobody had been arrested, but the flags had been taken by the police. When I heard this story, I suggested that only three of us should return to Conakry until the matter was cleared up.
Admiral Reed, his aide, and I went back to the port, supposedly to meet the Defense Minister. Once in the area I saw the Deputy Defense Minister standing under the light near one of the gates. He stepped forward briskly and told me that naval personnel had committed a serious offense. I asked him about the nature of this offense. Pointing dramatically to the pile of plastic Soviet flags, he said it was a serious offense to desecrate the flag of a friendly country in Guinea. He said that these flags had been pulled down by Americans. I said that I knew no American would willfully desecrate the flag of another nation; furthermore, I was told that some of these flags had been picked up from the street for souvenirs. I myself had seen flags dangling from poles and lying in the street that very morning and had remarked to the Embassy chauffeur that the Department of Public Works usually cleaned up the flags very quickly after the departure of the dignitaries.
When I asked the official how many men had been apprehended, he admitted that no arrests had been made, but the flags were collected. He didn’t give a satisfactory explanation about locking the gates or posting a guard. I asked for further proof that the flags had been taken by the Americans. He said the proof was in two jeeps locked inside the gate. I said that I wanted to see this evidence, and the Deputy Minister ordered the gates opened. I hurried over to Admiral Reed and suggested that he go aboard the Hermitage and wait for his aide and me.
The aide, the Deputy Minister, and I walked toward the pier and came upon a Guinean soldier guarding two navy jeeps. The Deputy Minister, without a flashlight, reached under the seat of one of the jeeps and pulled out one Soviet flag. He walked over to the other jeep and pulled out one plastic Soviet flag. I had expected to see the jeeps piled high with flags, and expressed my surprise at seeing only two. I told the Deputy that there was very little to go on but I would like to have the flags for a few hours. This appeared to me to be a case of souvenir hunting which he was mistaking for something else. I reminded him that the Americans had been from one end of Conakry to the other buying souvenirs of their visit to Guinea, and I could easily understand why they might pick up these flags lying around in the street. The Deputy handed me the flags, but said that he would have to have them in the morning.
Before returning to the Hermitage I walked over to the Customs Office located near the main gate to phone the all-clear signal to the officers and men in Donka. Out of the darkness from the other side of the Customs Office came the familiar voice of Embassy officer Darold Keane. Keane stepped out of an Embassy car, obviously very glad to see me, and said that he knew I would come to his rescue. When I asked Keane what he was talking about, he said that he had been locked in the port area since leaving one of the ships at 10:30 p.m. He had been told that the only way he could get out was to be released by the American Ambassador. I called a guard and told him to let Keane out of the gate. Keane made some kind of a record going through that exit. I telephoned my wife and returned to the Hermitage to await the arrival of the men from Donka. Very shortly everybody was aboard and accounted for.
I told Admiral Reed that as far as I was concerned the incident was closed. This appeared to be an attempt to blow a minor incident into something bigger, but the whole thing had fizzled out. Reed expressed the hope that I would experience no problems because of the events of the evening. I assured him that there would be no repercussions, and bade him good-bye. The ships were to leave early that morning at high tide.
I got back to Donka and found the employees still cleaning up, but this time they were doing so as a result of the big midnight snack served the navy men. The staff had enjoyed the unusual events of the evening and went away contented when they realized they had been paid for overtime.
I had to go out to the airfield the next morning to welcome another group of dignitaries. I handed the Deputy Minister a large envelope after shaking his hand and asking him if he had slept well. He thanked me and went over to join his colleagues. I have always wondered why he never asked me for that second plastic flag.
The only reference ever made to this flag incident came several weeks later when the police arrested some British seamen for gathering plastic flags. Defense Minister Fodéba Keita met me at a reception at the Présidence and said laughingly that he could have had “my Americans” picked up for the same thing. I replied that I was surely glad he had not done so, because it would have meant my walking all the way out to Camp Alpha Yaya with two marincs lo get them out.
This would have delayed the ships’ departure by a few minutes, and rear admirals never liked to be late leaving a port. The conversation ended in laughter.
I had been very happy with both visits of the American ships. Nothing marred that feeling. It was a thrilling experience to be piped aboard those flagships in December 1960 and February 1961, to hear the national anthem and inspect the guards of honor. On each occasion I had experienced that tingling sensation up and down my spine as I stood at attention during the national anthem. Each time I had that taut feeling in my throat and had hoped that there was no tell-tale evidence of moisture in my eyes.
One curious side effect of the comings and goings of the U.S. C-130’s in August and the ships of the U.S. South Atlantic Fleet in December and February was that the Western and Eastern members of the diplomatic corps, as well as the members of the Guinean Government, thought that I had had a hand in planning all of this. In reality, the only thing which I had a part in planning was the goodwill visit of the destroyers in December. When I heard about the presence of U.S. ships on amity patrol in waters off the coast of Africa, I felt it would be a wonderful idea if they could stop at Guinea. The Government of Guinea cooperated with the idea. It would have been a losing cause, however, to try to convince anybody in Guinea that I was not behind the idea of bringing in American planes and LSD’s. I must admit that I was impressed with the good that they did in promoting a feeling of friendship toward America. We could use all the good will we could get!
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Fulbright Scholar. Rockefeller Foundation Fellow. Internet Society Pioneer. Smithsonian Research Associate.